The #1 Divorce Mistake If You Have Kids

05/12/2015 03:38 pm ET | Updated May 11, 2016

Divorce comes with so many tasks. You must each create new bank accounts, arrange for changes in health benefits, sign appropriate documentation, and more.

At least one of you must find a new living space, obtain furniture, set up utilities, and arrange accommodations for shared custody of the kids.

Wait. The kids.

Right. You must tell them this is happening. You must tell them this is real. You must tell them...what?

When compared to sitting your children down and telling them that you and your spouse are getting a divorce, things like bank accounts and furniture are downright trivial. After all, the act of telling your kids that the two most important adults in their life are no longer going to be together is perhaps one of the most emotionally significant conversations they'll ever have. Children--especially younger children--absorb everything. They notice things that even we as adults take for granted.

This conversation may very well plant a seed regarding how they relate to the act of love as they grow up. In this formative time of their life, we're supposed to have this conversation in a way that doesn't disrupt their lives even more than the divorce itself already will. But how are we supposed to even do that?

Typically, parents will tell their children that the fact that they're getting divorced doesn't diminish their love for them. "This doesn't mean that we don't both love you very much," they might say. And they may even assure the children that they didn't do anything wrong. "Everything you do is perfect," they might say, "this is just something that Mommy and Daddy have to do."

But what if the child asks why it even needs to happen? What if the child asks if this divorce is because the parents don't love each other anymore? Most parents will likely have the wisdom to not come right out and say, "we don't love each other anymore," but even if they don't say such a thing, they may drop clues all the same.

If they don't tell the child together, if they sit far away from each other, and if they experience a coldness and hostility even just through more subtle interactions they may very well send that message. Parents can fail to assure their children of things being okay by their very presence, and this may be all that the child needs to
observe the truth. Amidst this coldness, the parents miss an opportunity to send a different message. And it becomes one of the biggest mistakes they make as a parent.

Now, of course the divorce isn't likely to be taking place because everyone is so happy and loving all the time. People usually get divorced as the result of some rather difficult experiences. Sometimes one or both spouses have been unfaithful, sometimes there has been abuse, and sometimes there's just a tremendous amount of bitterness surrounding years of misunderstandings and differences of opinion.

With all of this in mind, it is understandable how much resentment and hostility may creep into any conversation surrounding what is happening. How do we not make these feelings the burden of a child?

The adversity we experience in relation to another person--like resentment over a divorce--is an opportunity to reflect not just on the bitterness we feel toward the other, but the growth we have the potential to experience on our own. Indeed, we may have experienced hardship in response to the various conflicts that have led to our divorce. But the simple truth is that both our spouses and ourselves have something in common--turmoil. We have both felt pain, and when we feel pain we have a chance to use it to learn something new about ourselves.

With this in mind, when we decide to view our divorce as an opportunity to grow we can look at our soon-to-be ex-spouse as a crucial player in our finding that growth. If they have exhibited particularly hurtful behaviors, then they have done so because they suffer a great deal. And even if the divorce isn't taking place because of particularly deceptive or mean-spirited behaviors, they are likely suffering in response to this transition all the same. If we see them as struggling as we do, if we see them as being a person who can help us to grow, we can find it in ourselves to thank them for being there to serve this role in our lives.

If we consider our spouse as a part of our growth, we can offer them our love regardless of what has happened in the past. We want our children to grow up in a world in which they believe that love is not only possible but that they are worthy of receiving it themselves. In order for this to be true for them, it has to be true for us as well. How are you supposed to tell your child about this divorce? Rather than tell them that it's because you and your spouse don't love each other anymore, tell them it is the vessel through which you actually will.

George Sachs PsyD is a child psychologist in New York City and founder of the Sachs Center.